12/03/2013 8:02PM

Harvey Vanier, longtime top Illinois trainer, dies at 89


Retired trainer Harvey Vanier, among the Midwest’s leading horsemen during the 1980s and 1990s, died at home in Versailles, Ky., on Sunday. Vanier was 89.

Born April 21, 1924 in Diller, Neb., Vanier got his start in racing on the Nebraska circuit – first as a jockey – in the early 1940s. His operation expanded considerably through the decades, and Vanier trained high-class stakes winners like Architect, Play Fellow, Western Playboy, Southern Playgirl, and Wade for Me. Vanier won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland with Play Fellow in 1983, and with Play Fellow’s son Western Playboy in 1989. Play Fellow went on to finish sixth in the Kentucky Derby (he won the 1983 Travers Stakes), while Western Playboy was a troubled 15th in his Derby run.

An historical record dating to the 1940s is difficult to tabulate, but it appears Vanier, who last ran a horse under his name in 2004, saddled at least 2,043 winners during his career. Based principally in Illinois, though he raced winters in Florida and regularly had runners in Kentucky, Vanier won 719 races at Arlington Park alone and is the all-time leading stakes winner there, with 37.

In 1960 Vanier, an Army veteran, married his wife, Nancy, who remains an important part of the Vanier operation. A keen student of pedigree, Nancy Vanier was instrumental in the Vanier’s expansion of their still-active Illinois breeding outfit, Fairbury Farm in Waterloo, Ill. Vanier’s daughter Lyda Williamson (he also is survived by a second daughter, Jennifer Allen), married Brian Williamson, who took over the Vanier string when Harvey, in his early 80s, finally agreed to step down.

Vanier had been hospitalized with cancer of the esophagus but returned home and received hospice care before he died. Much of his family visited the Vaniers' small Kentucky farm for Thanksgiving before Vanier died Sunday afternoon.

Services will be conducted at Quernheim Funeral Home in Waterloo. Visitation is from 4-8 p.m. Friday, with a funeral at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Hal Ninethousand More than 1 year ago
First trainer I ever worked for (Keeneland) and one of the very best. A real horseman. RIP Harvey.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
Very few trainers can say they trained a horse who won 4 Grade 1's in their 3YO year. Harvey Vanier did that with Play Fellow. Rest In Peace Sir.....
martin keane More than 1 year ago
RIP Harvey,you were the best horseman, I ever worked for.blue buckeroo
Race Fund More than 1 year ago
Condolences to the Vanier family. Dad use to race with Mr. Vanier back in Nebraska. He was a fine gentleman.
Walter More than 1 year ago
RIP Harvey. You were always one of the few who competed very well against the likes of Richard Duchosoiss and Irish Acre Farms in the Illinois bred races years ago.
akhiym james More than 1 year ago
Had a chance to meet him and his wife. Very classy people. May you rest in peace
Brian More than 1 year ago
I remember 25 years ago I was progressively betting one of his horses. After two lousy outings, my system called for betting $300 to win on the horse the next time out. I went to the OTB on Jackson to bet, and when I looked at his odds he was going off at 30-1. I'd never bet that kind of money on a 30-1 shot and wasn't going to start. Then for some reason I suddenly recalled a conversation I had with his wife Nancy about 6 months prior. She had lost a necklace around the winner's circle at either Sportsman's or Hawthorne, and when she was about to lose hope I looked down on the ground and there it was. When I stopped her to give it to her she was so appreciative and we began talking horses for about 10 minutes and then she left. So upon remembering the nice exchange I had with her, I promptly stepped up to the window and fired. After all, I figured that Harvey and Nancy are such nice and classy people, I knew I wouldn't be mad if it ran another lousy race. When the horse, Gumshoes, opened up by lengths in the stretch at 30-1 I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Harvey did it the right way, allowing his 2 yr olds to develop and avoided the temptation of juicing them with steroids. His younger horses always looked a little scrawny next to a few others, but there was a reason for it. By the time they hit 4, Harvey was sending those horses packing. I was fortunate to have seen Harvey one last time at AP this summer, being wheeled around in a wheel chair by Nancy. Seemed like after 25 years the most important thing never changed -- wherever you saw Harvey, Nancy wasn't far behind. What a wonderful couple and an excellent example of staying grounded and staying true to the most important things in life! Hats off Harvey! You did it the right way! You'll be dearly missed!!
jackdsplns More than 1 year ago
Nice story about a legendary Chicago trainer. He will be missed and never forgotten.
Robin Blythe More than 1 year ago
Brian, thank you for this wonderful remembrance of Harvey & Nancy. I first met them when Western Playboy & Architect were racing. I only bet occasionally, but the first time I ever bet an exacta (it was a cold one too), was on Harvey's colt Lt. Pinkerton over Snake Eyes in the Jefferson Cup Stakes at Churchill. It hit for over $18. There are very few trainers who have been equally successful with homebreds & sale purchases, but Harvey was. Brilliantly illustrated by Harvey's tutelage of sale yearling Play Fellow, his homebred son Western Playboy & sale yearling daughter Safe Play, all G1SW. The Vanier's horses always got the chance to be the best they could be. The scope of knowledge & horsemanship possessed by Nancy & Harvey is unparalleled today.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Great story, I've been to the Jackson OTB many times, I hope you didn't cash your big ticket at night. It may have been difficult to get outta there with all that loot.
Ben and Siobhan Allen More than 1 year ago
One of the hardest workers you could ever imagine at the barn from sun-up to sun-down 7 days a week for many many years. Rest in Peace
michael More than 1 year ago
RIP Mr. Vanier. Amazing trainer even in advancing years. Enjoyed betting his horses as a younger fan. Racing will miss these honest veterans.
Ray More than 1 year ago
One of the trainers I met as a young player. He was a true gentleman.